America Held Hostage

As traditionally happens in this century, a Republican controlled House of Representatives is holding the nation’s debt ceiling hostage to get concessions from a Democrat president. So far, despite the cliff hanging last minute resolutions of the past, the U.S. has never defaulted on its debts. This time it feels different. I’ll explain why below.

As I have written in this space before, it is important to remember that the debt limit is based on commitments already made by the U.S. government based on the budget and appropriations authorized by past Congresses. It is not about new spending. It is about paying for past commitments, much like using a credit card to pay for a new suit and then later having to pay the credit company for the clothes you are already wearing. The laws creating the debt ceiling can be traced to the U.S. entry into World War I and were designed to make it easier for the government to expend funds in time of war. Since 1960 the debt ceiling has been raised 78 separate times, 49 times under Republican presidents and 29 times under Democratic presidents. Indeed, it may surprise you to know that the debt ceiling was raised three times under the last administration with no muss, no fuss and in a bipartisan vote.

Why the debt ceiling is important can be complicated. Likewise, so is the impact of failing to raise it this time. In part, no one knows exactly what will happen because the U.S. has never defaulted on its obligations to pay creditors. However, most economists and financial experts believe that a default, perhaps even the threat of a default as we inch closer to the deadline, could have catastrophic consequences for the U.S. economy and to the world economy. As Catherine Rampell succinctly outlines it in an opinion piece in the Washington Post, based on interviews with leading experts on the subject, the result would be a “financial Armageddon.” Briefly, much of our and the world’s investments and financial institutions are based on the ironclad belief in U.S. Treasury bonds. The U.S. has always made good on the interest and principal payments for those bonds. They are the bedrock of the financial system because they have always been considered risk free. If U.S. bonds are deemed unreliable and they are down graded, it has a cascading effect on other assets. As a result, interest rates would rise across the board, the stock market would plummet, companies holding bonds that count on bond interest payments for revenue and investments could collapse, investors accepting bonds as collateral could call in the money owed, which without the bonds and their interest, could cause borrowers to go bankrupt and if all of that happens at the same time, the system simply would collapse.

Kind of a big deal. That summary also does not mention that Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, military salaries, government workers salaries, etc. etc. would not be paid. Some believe that “selective” payments of certain bills over others could mitigate the impact of a full default but no one in government is sure how that would work, who decides and whether it is even legal under current laws.

That is why the MAGA Republicans are holding the debt ceiling hostage. The consequences are considered to be so dire, that surely the president must concede to their draconian demands in order to save the world. Bwaaaahahahaaa.

In theory, we have already broken through the ceiling. In practice, through the use of “special measures” Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen has been able to keep paying the bills. She now says that come 1 June, the special measures will no longer be able to meet the payments required.

The Republican controlled House did pass a debt ceiling increase in a bill last week. Many of the Republicans that voted for it expressed their opinion that it would never make it into law but rather that it was just a starting point for negotiations with the president. In fact, President Biden is scheduled to meet with the leaders of both parties in the House and Senate to discuss the issue tomorrow. The problem is that President Biden says he will not negotiate with terrorists. Well, I said that. He said he would not negotiate over the debt ceiling but was happy to do so for the budget and appropriations. The Speaker of the House refuses to separate the issues. Probably, because the House bill passed last week is so extreme, he knows it will not pass on its own and thus he must hold the debt ceiling hostage in order to squeeze out concessions.

Please note that President Biden put forth his budget over a month ago and the Republicans have yet to present their version of the budget, only the vague provisions in their debt ceiling bill. (A quick primer on U.S. government. The budget is the desired spending requirements and where, the Appropriations process is where the actual allocation of funds occurs and the Authorization committee allows for funds to be spent. The bills usually go through a lengthy committee process that involves detailed negotiations. That is the “regular order” that the president would like to see happen rather than the high stakes game playing out now.)

Here are some of the highlights of the bill pushed through by the MAGA Republicans in the House. The actual bill is hundreds of pages long, but here are areas that have drawn the most attention. The debt ceiling will only be extended until March of 2024. Thus if the president accedes to all of their demands, we will be in the same situation in less than a year anyway and an election year at that. They demand a 22% cut in all “non-defense discretionary spending.” They also say Social Security and Medicare are off the table. As Dana Milbank explains, that means that the areas cut will, among others, include the FBI, border security, airport security, highway construction, veterans health benefits, food stamps, national parks and a whole lot more. If they decide not to cut 22% from some programs (remember that they have not said where the cuts will come from, only that they are required), then the cuts will be more than 22% in some areas. Should this become law, it will have a devastating impact on our economy. Economists warn that the provisions of the current bill would greatly increase unemployment, significantly slow economic growth and raise the probability of a recession in the coming months.

Why would the MAGA Republicans want to do that? Two things come to mind. One, is if the economy is significantly disrupted, it increases Republican chances to retake the White House and the Congress in 2024. That’s the most charitable scenario. The second reason for playing with the economy is much more nefarious in my mind.

By definition, MAGA Republicans are ardent supporters of Trump, Trumpism and the insurrectionists on 6 January. Trump tried to overthrow the government in order to keep himself in the presidency. There is no question about that. Fake electors. Attacks on voting machine companies. Pleas to find phantom voters — “I just want 11,780 votes.” Fomenting violence against the Congress to preclude a fair and peaceful transition of power. It is all there. They are domestic terrorists. Too strong a statement? I think not. What else would we call people that supported overthrowing the duly elected government of the United States? If they supported Osama Bin Laden they would be called terrorists. He didn’t fly the planes into New York and Washington DC. Yet, clearly he was a terrorist. How is it different in this case? I cannot believe that anyone in these united states would support Trump for anything other than a long prison term. I cannot think of one good policy or decision that he made. But even if you named twenty wonderful things that he did, sorry, game over. He tried to foment a coup to overthrow the government. End of discussion. It did not work but I think he and his supporters will try again. Yet increasingly, Trump’s actions are being normalized. He has an upcoming one hour “town hall” on CNN. That is normalizing his actions and legitimizing his candidacy. To date, no other candidates have a one hour town hall scheduled. Why give him his infomercial to spread lies?

What does all of this have to do with the debt ceiling? My point is that there are MAGA Republicans willing to do anything to get rid of President Biden and bring in Trump (or some other autocrat wannabe like him). If that means tanking the world economy and throwing everything into chaos, then so be it. Terrorists use every means available to gain their desired end state.

I have absolutely no doubt that there are members of the House that would be perfectly happy to see the U.S. default on its debt. Just the price of doing business to create the conditions for an autocrat to assume power.

There are ways to stop the madness. I am not sure that there are any Republican “moderates” left in the House that could be counted upon to do the right thing. They all voted for the current mess of a bill that we have now. Yet, the Speaker only has a four vote majority. There may be five or ten Republicans willing to break ranks and join the Democrats to pass a reasonable debt ceiling bill. There are at least 18 House districts where Republicans won, but President Biden won the presidential vote handily. The Democrats already have a bill in committee that could be used to create a “discharge petition” that under certain rules, could bring a bill to the floor despite the Speaker’s objections. It requires the signed support of the majority of the House, which while a long shot, has a chance. Unfortunately, the window between proceeding with collecting the signatures and the date of default is very narrow.

Another option may be the 14th Amendment which reads in part, “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.” The original intent of this portion of the amendment was a reaction to Civil War debts, and it has never been used in modern times. Some legal experts believe that it gives the president authority to exceed the debt limit on his own, but should it be invoked, it will surely end up before the courts and that process could lead to a long period of uncertainty which would be nearly as disastrous to the economy.

What is certain is that no one knows exactly how this will be resolved. Current proposals include a few months extension for more negotiations, but personally, I do not see how the situation will change by then. The simplest answer is to raise the debt ceiling with a “clean” bill (no amendments or poison pills attached) and then do as the government should do — negotiate separate budget and appropriations bills.

But then when was the last time that things unfolded as they should?

The Seditionists Among Us

The United States Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, commonly referred to as the 1/6 Committee, was formed via a House resolution on 30 June 2020. Its membership was finalized on 25 July after the Speaker of the House added Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-ILL) to the committee. It consists of seven Democrats and two Republicans (there are only two after Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (CA) refused Republican participation over a dispute as to membership), and is chaired by Representative Bennie Thompson (D-MS). We do not know the full extent of the information that they have collected to date, but it is known that they have interviewed over 300 witnesses and collected well over 35,000 documents. They are known to have subpoenaed 78 people, some of whom have testified, others are fighting it and some are under investigation or indictment for contempt of Congress. While the final report is not expected until late this coming summer, the committee has shared some information through carefully crafted subpoena letters and through media interviews. A lot of what we know now we instinctively or intuitively knew around the time of the events. What is coming out of the committee’s investigation is an understanding of the depth and breadth of the ex-president’s efforts to execute a coup to keep himself in office. It was a carefully thought out effort and not the disjointed and seemingly spurious or spontaneous collection of individual events that it at first appeared to be.

Think about that for a minute. A President of the United States tried to execute a coup to keep himself in office after what his own Attorney General and administration officials called the most secure and fair election in the history of the United States.

Not content to merely attempt a coup that failed at the time — mostly by luck it appears, as key people decided to uphold the Constitution rather than swear allegiance to one man — the ex-president continues to try to create the conditions to overthrow the current president. With the support of the majority of his party, an ex-president is purposely undermining our democratic ideals a year after leaving office and he continues to claim that he is the real president.

Apparently, the bulk of the Republican Party is okay with that.

Some of what they planned to do to retain Trump in power was obvious and heavy handed. Some of it was more subtle, with behind the scenes maneuvers to manipulate the certification process in the Congress. Here is some of what we have learned so far about the coup that may not be so obvious to casual observers:

  • Professor and Trump adviser John Eastman put together a memo (now called the Eastman Memo) that uses unprecedented interpretations of the 12th Amendment and Electoral Count Act to convince Vice President Mike Pence to decide in favor of Trump electors from key states and to disregard the official certified electors from states that President-elect Biden won.
  • This memo was the basis for electors in key swing states to put together an “alternative” slate of electors to substitute for, or at least to compete with, those submitted to certify Mr. Biden’s election. The Select Committee subpoenaed representatives from seven states that submitted alternate slates (Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin). Not surprisingly, all of the documents have identical wording, font, paper and format — as though it was formulated elsewhere and sent to those “electors.” These forged documents were sent to the Senate and to the National Archives.
  • Key Republican members of Congress were coached on raising concerns over electors in those key states and were encouraged to substitute the Trump slates, or to have the official slates for Mr. Biden thrown out. Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH) self-identified himself as one of those encouraging the Vice President to call the votes for Mr. Biden “unconstitutional” and have them thrown out.
  • An alternative plan was briefed in the Oval Office and to several Republican members of Congress that was outlined in a 38 page power point presentation by Colonel Phil Waldron USA (ret) that would have the sitting president declare a national security emergency prior to 6 January. That declaration would preclude the counting of the Electoral College ballots. They would then reject all machine counted ballots from November and mobilize the National Guard to seize all of the machines and paper ballots. The National Guard would be tasked to recount the ballots or to hold new elections in certain key states.
  • Among other documents, there is a draft 17 December 2020 Executive Order to seize all election related materials for “national security” reasons. A similar letter outlined plans for all Republican elected officials at the state and federal levels to ignore the “fraudulent” vote count and to “certify the duly-elected President Trump.”
  • The entire effort leading up to the 6 January insurrection was intended to either delay the certification of Mr. Biden, or to prevent it from happening through Trump allies in Congress. This is the reason for the 147 members of the Sedition Caucus in Congress to vote against certifying Mr. Biden’s election.
  • The insurrection itself was one of several steps aimed at stopping or delaying the certification process in order to at least keep Trump in office beyond 20 January, if not to keep him in office for a second term.

There is more. Much more. You get the idea. There was a vast, organized effort to keep Trump in office. A coup.

And now, this.

In his usual unhinged style, this past weekend Trump held a rally in Texas where he continued to rant and rave over the “stolen election.” Only this time it was worse.

Trump called for the “biggest protest” the country has ever seen in New York, Atlanta, and Washington DC. These are the very places where Attorneys General are investigating his coup attempt and his shady business practices from before 2016. He called the AGs “racist” — they all happen to be African-American and two are African-American women. For good measure he called them “mentally sick.” He also wondered aloud why the Supreme Court and other courts are not giving him “protection.” He lost every court case so far concerning the election and the release of his tax returns.

Ominously, he opined that the 6 January insurrectionists are being treated “unfairly” and that if necessary to be fair, he would pardon them all when he takes office in 2024.

So let’s put this all together. He has called for protesters to take to the streets in his support over a “rigged” election, given an undisguised dog whistle to white supremacist groups by calling black AGs racist, and said that he would pardon insurrectionists. If you need a green light from an ex-president to further incite violence and undertake a forceful coup, you just got it.

We cannot in good faith allow his blatant attempts to undermine our democracy to continue unchallenged. Where are all the “good” Republicans? How can people, as Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) did recently, as have other Republicans in Congress, say that if he is their candidate in 2024 they will vote for him? When does it stop?

There is no “both sides.” There is no “this is just politics.” This is not “what about Biden and taxes.” This is about nothing more fundamental than whether or not one supports the Constitution of the United States. If an elected official takes the oath to defend the Constitution and supports Trump, then they lied in saying “I do” and are unfaithful to their oath.

Let’s get to the bottom line.

Last night Trump released an “official” statement commenting on attempts to refine and update the Electoral Count Act where he denigrates the effort. It read in part:

“Actually, they are saying that Mike Pence did have the right to change the outcome, and they want to take that right away. Unfortunately, he didn’t exercise that power, he could have overturned the Election!”

Any doubt about his intentions a year ago? Or now?

Any elected official that swore an oath to defend the Constitution and still supports Trump is un-American, un-patriotic and aiding and abetting sedition. They must choose between their oath and their allegiance to one man.

We can no longer pretend that he is irrelevant or just crazy and can be ignored. He is a maniac intent on overthrowing our democratic values and installing himself in office. It was an attempted coup and the effort continues. Wake up America!

There is no longer a question and it is no longer hypothetical. Trump is a threat and he and his accomplices are accountable under the law — ex-president or not.

Another Tough Year Ahead

“I think the country needs a strong Republican Party going forward, but our party has to choose. We can either be loyal to Donald Trump or we can be loyal to the Constitution, but we cannot do both.”

—Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) on CBS “Face the Nation” on 2 January 2022

Welcome to 2022! Most of us are optimistic at the start of each new year that the coming year will be better than the year before. It is a time of hope, good will and enthusiasm. By nature, I am an optimistic person that believes when given a chance, the average person will do the right thing. Looking ahead to the coming year, I do not have that feeling.

We thought we had the pandemic under control in the summer and fall of 2021 and we didn’t. We now set new records daily thanks to the omicron variant. As we pass 825,000 dead Americans, we still have about 100 million of us that refuse to get vaccinated, swamping our hospitals with cases that squeeze out others with life-threatening illnesses or injuries. Indeed, many of those hospitalized with Covid-19 still refuse to believe that it is a thing. Republican politicians around the country encourage irresponsible actions in the name of “freedom,” even as they themselves are vaccinated. I did not imagine such abominable behavior when the true import of the pandemic first hit home. There are now new ethical decisions that none of us are prepared to address. Do we turn people away from the use of limited medical care after they chose to act irresponsibly in favor of those that have done everything right and still end up in the hospital? Do all of our insurance premiums go up to take care of those that deliberately choose to disregard all prudent actions? Tough questions that none of us thought much about before.

As serious a threat as the pandemic is to our well-being, a bigger threat looms ever closer to destroying our democracy. As we approach the first anniversary of the assault on the Constitution through the 6 January insurrection, we still have no one held accountable that was “in charge.” Roughly 750 insurgents that attacked the Capitol have been indicted or tried for the assault. The foot soldiers are being tracked down and punished, but the ersatz colonels and wanna-be generals that sent them to create havoc have not. We are now in another election year and the perpetrators of the studied attempt to overturn our democracy have not been held accountable. Indeed, those in and out of government, including the 147 members of the Republican Sedition Caucus are free to roam the country demanding faux audits (several are ongoing or about to begin in Texas, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and elsewhere) over a year after all states certified the actual results. Countless court cases have been dismissed for a lack of evidence. Not one scintilla of evidence that anything harmful was done anywhere that would change the election results has been produced. And yet, it continues. I do not think that any of those perpetrating the Big Lie through court cases and audits truly believe that the election was stolen. Their goal is to continue to undermine election integrity and to create the conditions that if their preferred candidate does not win, then it is by definition a bogus election and must be overturned.

Thus, our great experiment in democracy comes to an end.

The safeguards that were in place in November 2020 will not be there this time around as extremist Republicans are systematically replacing bipartisan or nonpartisan election officials with their own hardcore believers at the county and state levels. Next time when a presidential candidate calls a state Secretary of State in charge of the election and says “So look. I just want to find 11,780 votes” he will get them. Numerous states passed new election laws that aim to suppress the vote. That arguably can be overcome with a concerted effort to get out the vote and by educating voters on how to cast a ballot in spite of those efforts. More troubling are the laws like that proposed in House Bill 2720 by the Arizona state legislature that allows the Republican controlled legislature to override the popular vote count and send their own chosen electors to the Electoral College — for any reason.

As I have written in this space before, there are Bills passed by the House and sent to the Senate that would standardize national elections across all fifty states. Currently, they are stalled in the Senate by the filibuster and the reluctance of numerous Senators to create a “cut-out” of the filibuster to allow for a simple majority to pass election laws — something, by the way, that since the mid 1960s used to enjoy a bipartisan consensus to protect the vote. No longer. Lost in the discussion is the practical logic that the numerous state voter suppression and cancellation laws passed in Republican legislatures pass on the basis of a simple majority. So by the Senate’s logic, states can restrict the vote at their discretion, even if it is by only one vote, but the mighty Senate of the United States cannot protect it with an elected simple majority. Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) recently announced that he will hold a vote no later than 17 January (Martin Luther King Day) to pass voting rights legislation — and will include a measure to override the filibuster if so needed. It is unclear if the votes are there. My feeling is that they are not. I hope that Leader Schumer forces the vote in order to put on the record those Senators that oppose voting rights.

Meanwhile, Donald J. Trump and his minions continue to bray about the “rigged” election that he lost fair and square — as attested to by many in his own administration including his personal attorney who also happened to be the Attorney General of the United States at the time. While they are making what is professionally called “a ton of money” pushing this scheme, it is also clear that they were serious in their intentions. The House Select Committee investigating the 6 January assault has unearthed a treasure trove of information about the days leading up to the insurrection. At that, they have only publicly talked about a fraction of the information that they have gained from interviewing 300 witnesses and collecting over 30,000 documents. They are putting together the case that most of us knew instinctively — Trump and his sedition bound cohorts had a plan to deny Joe Biden the White House to keep Trump in power. We now know that the wheels of that plan began to turn as early as the day after the election and was based on numerous simultaneous and complimentary efforts to throw out Electoral College votes from key swing states — or better yet, replace the certified votes with new ones picked by Trump’s cronies. Their ultimate goal was either a revised Electoral College count, or to throw it to the House of Representatives where under the terms of the Electoral Act of 1887 and the 12th Amendment to the Constitution Trump would win as each state has only one vote, regardless of the number of Representatives from that state. The purpose of the actions by Trump, the Sedition Caucus, pressure on Vice President Pence, his “War Room” in the Willard Hotel and other Trump efforts was to delay the certification of the Electoral College vote so that the rest of the plan could come to fruition.

The attack on the Capitol was the last effort to delay that vote. In my view, it was intended (and I mean intended — it was no spontaneous eruption) to further aid in delaying the certification of the election in order to buy more time to complete the plan. If members of Congress were killed, injured, or kidnapped, in the process, too bad, but so much the better as that would certainly slow things down. I further think that when all of the evidence is assembled, that a secondary element of the plan was the expectation that counter-protesters would attack the Trump supporters creating a general melee and chaos, allowing Trump to declare martial law and delay the certification proceedings for an indefinite period of time. The then Commander-in-Chief watched the assault on TV for 187 minutes before calling it off. What was he waiting for? Clearly, at worst he was hoping that they would succeed. At best, he was derelict in his duty as the Commander-in-Chief. Either way, he needs to be held accountable.

(A side note: I am not by nature a conspiracy theorist. I am not falling prey to that with my comments above. I think that the evidence will show that there were multiple avenues of obstruction to their plan and the belief that counter-protesters would attack is the reason that the National Guard was not quickly deployed. They were being held in reserve to “rescue” the Trump supporters.)

They had a plan. It had branches and sequels. It failed. They are now putting into place the mechanisms to succeed next time around. That scares me greatly.

As Representative Cheney said, it is time for Republicans to choose to follow their oath to the Constitution or to continue to actively undermine our country in the support of one man — as if in a cult — who clearly wants to be an autocrat for life. Just this week, he “endorsed” Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban for reelection. Mr. Orban is a hero of the American right-wing and held up as an example for our own leaders to emulate. To the rest of the world, Mr. Orban is an autocrat who eroded all of the rights of a former post-Soviet democracy, turning the country into a democracy in name only. As the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin is said to have proclaimed, “I consider it completely unimportant who in the party will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this — who will count the votes, and how?”

There is one final consideration. Should we or should we not hold a former president criminally liable for his actions and take him to trial and possibly incarcerate him along with his accomplices? Following Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974 over the Watergate scandal, President Gerald Ford chose to pardon him in order to relieve the nation of the ordeal of a possible trial and the chaos that may ensue. Further, in the United States we have no tradition of incoming administrations of another party prosecuting former political enemies. Indeed, we scoff at other nations that do so and label them “Banana Republics.” Impeachment by the House and conviction in the Senate is our preferred method of holding presidents accountable. To take one to trial would be unheard of and perhaps set a horrible precedent for the future. But…..

We have never had a president in our long history try to overthrow a duly elected successor in order to keep himself in power. Even after such a failed attempt, we have never had another ex-president continue to claim that he is the “true” president and to incite others to overthrow the government. Even a year later. Those actions are unprecedented and therefore the remedy needs to be unprecedented. I hope that the Department of Justice puts together a case against all of those that were involved, including the ex-president. Although I am out of the prediction business, my sense is that once again, Trump will walk away without consequences. Perhaps that may be best for our country in the long run, as a trial and conviction of the ex-president would, I fear, lead to widespread violence across our country. It may be a lose-lose proposition.

So, my optimism for 2022 is subdued, at best. We are in for some tough times as a country. Not the toughest — the Civil War comes to mind — but a dangerous time for certain.

Stay healthy and may good fortune find you this year.